Government & Politics

With tech jobs open in KC, Missouri eyes boost to computer science in high school

With two years left at Rockhurst High School, sophomore Tanner Helton is building websites for pay, and his Advanced Placement computer science class is starting an "internet of things" project.

Rockhurst last year began requiring freshmen to take computer science. Helton said he thought it was important for young people to have tech skills, and he appreciated the way the internet connects the globe.

"It's so limitless," said Helton, 16, who already was working with computers in his spare time. "Anything you want to do you can really do."

Helton's computer science teacher, J.W. Clark, said the new requirement was an effort to boost interest in computer science because of the need for tech skills in the workforce.

Now, the Missouri legislature is weighing a bill aimed at getting the state's public school students to take computer science in high school. Unlike at Rockhurst, an all-boys private high school, public school students would not have to take computer science. But schools would have to count the course as a math, science or practical arts credit required for graduation rather than treating it as an elective.

The bill has backing from Kansas City area organizations, including the KC Tech Council, because of its possible implications for the area workforce. Kansas City tech advocates say the area suffers from a tech worker shortage, and KC Tech Council president Ryan Weber said without an investment in the city's workforce, Kansas City won't be able to retain tech employers or attract new ones.

"The number one reason why Amazon didn’t select us as a finalist is the lack of workforce," Weber said. "That's a huge issue, and it can’t be understated.”

Tech companies employed more than 90,000 workers in the Kansas City area, according to the council's most recent industry report, released last year. Data the organization pulled from Gartner's TalentNeuron indicate that more than 2,800 tech jobs are open in the area.

“If we’re ever going to get close to closing the skills gap, we’ve got to flood our future pipeline," Weber said.

Missouri school counseling organizations, however, are concerned about the bill's implications for college-bound students. To graduate from high school, Missouri students need three years of math. Sharon Sevier, director of advocacy for the Missouri School Counselor Association, said that's often what Missouri colleges and universities require for admission, but they don't consider computer science to be a math class.

"If this bill goes through, it is entirely possible that the acceptance of our students could be compromised when they go to apply for college," Sevier said.

The bill passed the House 115-28, and members of the Senate Economic Development Committee heard testimony on the bill Tuesday. It still needs a Senate committee and full Senate vote.

Rep. Judy Morgan, a Democrat representing downtown Kansas City, said she voted against the bill in the House because of the concerns raised by counselors. She said she also was concerned that students wouldn't be prepared for college entrance exams if they didn't take as many standard math classes.

“I think it could be done, and the colleges may be receptive to it, but I think it just needs to go through that process where the colleges make the decision, 'We’re going to accept computer science as math,' " Morgan said.

Morgan said she would like to see the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education consider mandating computer science in public schools and provide recommendations to the General Assembly.

For Rockhurst students, having computer science experience is an asset in an interconnected world. Jacob Sykes, 18, is taking his first computer science course, software application development. The class wasn't required when he was a freshman, but the Harvard University-bound senior said he thought tech skills would help him be more well-rounded as he prepares to study engineering.

Center School District is offering computer science through Project Lead the Way, a project-based STEM curriculum, and computer tech classes where students take computers apart and deal in hardware, said Kelly Wachel, public relations director.

“The initiative seems to be based on the changing needs of the workforce, and we recognize that our role is to prepare students for their future, and this seems to be an attempt to keep aligning these two thoughts,” Wachel said.

Greg Owsley, director of Rockhurst's science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics program, or STEAM, said he thought that the education system largely was behind on helping students develop tech skills and that computer science would inevitably be required course work for high schools. Owsley said the required class was stoking students' interest in computer science as a career, and some were landing part-time jobs.

"When I was in high school, I worked at a movie theater. Other people worked at car washes or they mowed lawns in their neighborhood," Owsley said. "We have students getting jobs to do computer science work for companies. That's their high school job."

Clark said next year's enrollment for advanced placement computer science courses is double what it was before the required freshman course.

"My hope is that by having success in the intro (computer science) class, they realize it's something that they can do and any stigma about 'what's a computer programmer or what kind of skill set do they need?' is kind of washed away by the fact that they've gone through a semester of entry-level programming and succeeded," Clark said.